OPEN TUNING ON THE UKULELE (page 1)

Open Tuning on the Ukulele is the original tuning.  For most this is the best set-up for fingerpicking, or melody playing, and there are those who would also say that melodies played from this form give the Ukulele it’s most beautiful voice. First, we need to clarify the term “Open” and specify it a bit.  Open actually has three meanings in stringed instrument tunings, and in this letter we’ll use all of them.  They are distinct enough, that the context in which they are used should make the meaning clear. *************************************** First, Open can refer to a strum or picking pattern where no strings are fretted. Second, there are “Open” versus “Closed” tunings.  When a tuning has a very wide range of notes, it is considered to be more “Open” than when the notes of the tuning are more closely spaced.  Thus, a Linear tuning is more Open than an Ukulele reentrant set-up.  In the former, all notes are spaced 4 notes apart, but in the latter, the 4th string, by going up an octave,  moves back into the range of the other 3 notes, “closing” the tuning a bit.  Sometimes you may hear, for instance, people say that for their instrumentals, they like to have the extra three notes that a linear tuning gives them versus an Ukulele reentrant tuning.  It has greater range - therefore it is more “Open”.  A tuning in Linear 5ths, such as with Mandolins or (traditionally) Tenor Guitars is even more Open, as now the strings are tuned 5 notes apart.   On the other hand, there are those that feel that a four string instrument sounds better if the tuning is closed up a bit.  At any rate, those are a couple of meanings of the term “Open”. *************************************** The last meaning, and the one we’ll use more often here, is for a set-up with the strings tuned so that when they are strummed without fretting (strummed Open by the 1st meaning), the notes give a major chord.  There are a lot of ways to arrange this, and so there are varying forms of Open tuning.  With this letter, we’ll speak of only one form - the most common, and a form that’s very close to one of today’s Ukulele tunings. This style of Open Tuning is played, with a bit of variation, by multitudes of folks all over the world.  It’s used on the Ukulele’s father, the Portuguese Braguinha and the Ukulele’s cousin the Brazilian Cavaquinho.  If you take away the 5th & 6th strings of a guitar, then this is called the “Taropatch Slack Key” tuning, and if you take away it’s drone 5th string, it’s also the most common tuning for the Banjo.   To get to this form, you actually don’t have to change any of the strings you have now.  Simply tune your 1st string down one note.  If, for example, you are tuned to the Key of C, you would change your Linear tuning from g - c’ - e’ - a’  to  g - c’ - e’ - g’ .  You have now gone from a Linear C tuning in 4ths to an Open C tuning.  You follow the same process in any other Key.  In the Key of G, for example, the Linear 4ths arrangement of  d - g - b - e’  becomes  d - g - b - d’ You have gone from a Linear G in 4ths to an Open G.  Whatever Key you are tuned to, simply tune down the 1st string until it’s an octave above a Linear 4th string. *************************************** It’s easy to hear on your current Ukulele why so many like the sound of this tuning.  Try “slacking” the 1st string by one note - as outlined above - on any Ukulele you have now.  The traditional form of this Open tuning would have a Linear 4th, but there are a few who also do this with a reentrant 4th.  Now strum it and listen for yourself.  If you have slacked your 1st string and are now, for example, in Open C, an unfretted strum gives you a C chord.  If you want to compare it to the sound of your old C chord in 4ths, then just fret your 1st string on the 5th fret.  This is also a C chord - the notes you used to play in 4ths.  Go back and forth from one C chord to the other C chord a few times - from completely unfretted to fretting your 1st string at the 5th fret.  Many folks like the deeper sound of the Open C chord, feeling that the more closed arrangement has a richer voice.  This same feeling from the slightly closer voicing will be present in everything you play.  Now simply barre across the frets and move your barre up and down the fretboard.  You are playing major chords without having to make chord shapes.  You can see how this can be a great advantage for instrumental picking, as in general, your left hand isn’t doing nearly as much work, and you are free to concentrate more on your right hand picking.  If you’ve ever wondered about what Banjo players are doing when they’re sliding up and down the fretboard in the middle of rapid strumming, now you know. The ease of creating chords also makes this an ideal set-up for those with hand weakness or injuries.  One of the best known Ukulele Slack Key players, “Uncle Dave” Heaukulani, was a Slack Key Guitar player until losing the 1st finger of his left hand.  He simply moved to the Ukulele, where 4 strings let him stretch easily across the fretboard, put it in Open tuning, and continued to make beautiful music.  *************************************** Here’s a video by a fellow from just down the Southcoast in Houston, Gary Readore.  He’s a multi- instrumentalist with an affinity for both the Banjo and the Ukulele.  He has done a great series of instructional videos on Clawhammer Ukulele.  While it’s possible to play that style in a modern Ukulele set-up, he shows it in Open tuning.  This first lesson is an introduction and he goes over the basics I have just outlined, with emphasis on the Banjo relation.  If Clawhammer playing is something you’re interested in, the Open tuning makes it easier and quicker to gain proficiency - it developed from the Banjo, after all. The other lessons are all on YouTube, and though you don’t hear it on this first introduction video of the series, Gary can really play!  *************************************** You can probably start to see why this form of Open tuning is so popular for melody picking.  It would be a mistake, however, to think of it only as a vehicle for Clawhammer or other Banjo stylings.  I mentioned at the beginning of the letter that this was the original tuning for the Ukulele, and so it was. As was also mentioned, Open tunings are used on the Portuguese Braguinha also called the Machete and now often called the Cavaquinho, and the Brazilian version of the Cavaquinho.  All these instruments have their roots in Portugal, as does the Ukulele.  There were three luthiers who were primary among the Portuguese immigrants who migrated to Hawaii and created the Ukulele.  Jose Espiritu do Santo and Augusto Dias were two of the talented three, but probably the most influential was Manuel Nunes.  As the Ukulele began to gain notoriety, both in Hawaii and on the mainland, the first instruction manuals, or Method Books, began to be published.  The first of these were published on the mainland, and showed the Ukulele with the same reentrant C tuning that is common today.  In short order, it was decided this tuning was a bit deep, and it was moved up to the reentrant Key of D tuning that was common for the Ukuleles’ first 60 years - the time of Soprano dominance. But in 1915, the first instruction book to be published in Hawaii itself appeared.  The authors were A.A. Santos & Angeline Nunes, Manuel Nunes’ daughter-in-law.  Her husband Julius, was at that time in charge of the Nunes workshop.  It was called “The Original Method and Self- Instructor on the Ukulele”.  Santos & Nunes left no doubt as to the meaning of “Original” in the title of their manual.  The Original tuning for the Ukulele, they explained, was an open G tuning in the one-line octave, or an octave above G tuning on a Baritone Ukulele today.  In standard notation, that would be d’ - g’ - b’ - d”.  This tuning has never changed on the Portuguese Cavaquinho and while the Brazilian version is now sometimes played in Linear form, the Open tuning is still used by the great majority of players. Santos and Nunes also left no doubt as to what they saw as the function of Open tuning, versus the reentrant tuning associated with the Ukulele today.  Here’s an excerpt from the introduction of The Original Method: There are several methods now in circulation which are adapted to the taro patch instead of the Ukulele.  In fact, it is the taro patch method which has been applied to the Ukulele. We herewith present to the public the true and original method on the Ukulele, a method that will be appreciated by anyone who wants to learn to play the Ukulele beyond mere strumming. Anyone who can sing will be satisfied with the strumming, but those who cannot sing and who do not intend on playing in an orchestra, will want to take advantage of this method and before they realize it will be able to play anything from simple, but beautiful, “Aloha Oe” to the difficult and famous “Stars and Stripes Forever” (march). A bit of explanation is in order for that passage.  The first Ukuleles were basically unaltered from the Portuguese Machete.  It was actually called the Machete in it’s early days in Hawaii.  But there was another Portuguese instrument that became influential in the Ukulele’s development, and that was the Rajao.  This was a 5-string instrument, roughly between the size of a modern Concert and Tenor Ukulele, and with a tuning of d’ - g’ - c’ - e’ - a’.  Shortly the 5th string was dropped, and the other 4 courses were doubled.  This was then the 8-string Taropatch Ukulele, roughly the size of a modern Concert, and tuned in reentrant C.  Thus, when Nunes states that the mainland method books were showing Taro Patch tuning on the Ukulele, another way to say it would be that a 4-string Rajao variant tuning was being placed by mainlanders on the Machete. Both tunings were obviously used by the Portuguese, but it is also obvious from the passage above what their function was considered to be.  What has now become Ukulele reentrant tuning was for strumming and singing.  This was the Rajao.  The Machete, or Ukulele was a melody instrument.  This is not to say that melody is impossible with reentrant tuning - obviously there are a lot of players who play it beautifully.  But as with the Clawhammer example, Nunes, with centuries of the Portuguese experience in her background, considered the Open tuning to be the natural form for playing melody.  The one-line Open Key of G Machete tuning is also at a higher pitch, one that cuts over the mellower rhythm playing of a Key of C Rajao, or Taro Patch tuning.  Thus the Ukulele was also naturally suited to carry the lead sound in ensemble over the Key of C Rajao. Above is a video that illustrates the relation perfectly.  These are modern replica instruments - Machete & Rajao - not authentic in detail, but built and braced to be strung with classical strings, as was the case when the Portuguese first arrived in Hawaii. We are also very pleased to be able to offer “The Original Method and Self- Instructor on the Ukulele” for download.  The old photos of Santos & Nunes are a real treasure as are instructions on the open tuning and proper holding of the instrument.  Instruction is in English, and songs (including Aloha Oe) are in Hawaiian with English translation.  To download the manual, right click on the photo at left and “save target”.     While this book may contain the only vintage music written expressly for the Ukulele in Open tuning, a multitude of other old sources for open tuning sheet music, primarily from the banjo,  are available.                     
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